Eleven months ago, the least familiar member of an England side just setting out on its journey towards the World Cup squared up to an All Black front row at Twickenham and laughed in their faces. This was quite something. Generations of British props had been eaten alive by silver-ferned forwards of the cannibalistic variety - mean sons of guns like Jazz Muller and Ed Hazlett, John Ashworth and Gary Knight - and a certain Jason Leonard had once found himself so immobilised by a New Zealand scrum that Graeme Bachop, the cheeky little half-back from Canterbury, was able to place the ball directly under his feet and say: "Have it if you like - but you can't bloody move, can you?"
So the striking performance of Trevor Woodman, a Cornishman who had slowly worked his way north to the great front-row nursery of Gloucester via Plymouth and Bath, was very definitely a departure from the norm. England did not play particularly well that day, and might well have lost had an inexperienced All Black hooker by the name of Andrew Hore been able to throw the ball in the vague direction of a team-mate in the final minute, but Woodman's display on his first international start was plenty good enough to suggest a long and fruitful career at the sharp end of the red-rose operation.
And then came training, and a sickening setback. "I hit a scrummaging machine on the Monday after the game - we were playing the Wallabies the following weekend - and I felt something go in my back," he recalled this week. "I hadn't done anything daft; it was nothing more than a routine session of the type I'd gone through a thousand times before. But within two or three hours, I had seized right up. Suddenly, the game with Australia was the last thing on my mind. I knew I wouldn't be playing on the Saturday. What I didn't know was if I'd play again.
"The thing that really gets to you is the uncertainty, and when I received the diagnosis - the specialist told me that a disc had pushed out onto a nerve - I didn't know what to think. We left it two or three weeks to see if there was any chance of the injury settling down, but it soon became clear that I would need surgery. Did I fear for my future as a professional rugby player at that point? Yes."
Woodman felt more optimistic once his ordeal under the anaesthetic had been pronounced a success, but he had written off his chances of featuring in the Six Nations' Championship. And that, in turn, would threaten his World Cup prospects. He could not, after all, expect the likes of Leonard and Graham Rowntree to spurn the opportunity created by his failure to survive a simple, straightforward scrum session. There is honour amongst props - you can see them in a huddle, within arm's reach of the bar, after every game - but sympathy is not an emotion generally associated with the front-row fraternity.
"It was a long way back, that's for sure," continued Woodman, "not least because I'd lost a lot of the strength in my left arm. And the fact that it was World Cup year didn't make it any easier. I'd made the 40-man squad for the 1999 tournament, but missed out on the final cut because Victor Ubogu was picked ahead of me. There are only so many things you can miss before you start questioning yourself.
"Fortunately, my recovery went so well that I was back on the field ahead of schedule. I even managed to get off the bench for a couple of Six Nations matches at the end of the tournament."
Since when, Woodman has travelled onwards and upwards at a serious lick. It is a little over four years since his thoroughly modern all-round game - formidable scrummaging, muscular line-out work and a confrontational approach to the ball-carrying duties, seasoned with genuine pace and a sharp footballing intelligence - won the unanimous approval of a Kingsholm crowd reared on less fancy prop forwards like Mike Burton, who were rarely spotted in open field unless they were in conversation with the referee. Woodman's multi-dimensional approach reached full flower in Melbourne last June, when he played a prominent role in England's comprehensive victory over the Wallabies.
So prominent, indeed, that poor Rowntree ended up being nudged into World Cup oblivion. Rowntree was one of the heroes of the so-called "Siege of the Caketin" - the great six-man scrummaging effort against the All Blacks in Wellington, when a depleted England survived four defensive set-pieces on their own line against a full New Zealand pack - and might have expected a place in Clive Woodward's squad on the strength of that alone. But Woodman's effort a week later removed any possibility of his missing the cut a second time.
As he turned his thoughts towards tomorrow's intriguing match with Georgia, brick-hard Eastern Europeans with a deserved reputation for ferocious mauling and scrummaging, the 27-year-old wondered aloud whether his past disappointments, so depressing at the time, had not been the principle factors behind his recent surge up the rankings. "Were there occasions when I wished someone like Jason Leonard, with his dozens of caps, would just go away? I suppose so," he admitted. "But at this level, you have to look at yourself, at your own performance. Maybe I wasn't working as hard as my rivals during the times I was outside the England squad. Maybe I wasn't fit enough. Maybe I wasn't stringing together enough big performances. Looking back, I know now that my game would peak for a couple of matches, and then drift off. You can't afford that luxury in the professional environment.
"This is why we've worked so hard on this particular game with Georgia, and not spent a second thinking about the Springboks next week. People don't believe us when we say we've prepared for the Georgians as we would for a Test against France or New Zealand or the Wallabies, but if you're serious about being successful in a tournament like this, there is no other way. We know the Georgians are very strong at the set-piece, that there will be an incredibly physical challenge in that area, so it's down to the front row to stop them at source, to deny them any sort of foothold in the contest. If we don't do that, we'll be up the creek. Georgia may be unfamiliar, but it's a game of rugby like any other."
Ten caps into his international career, Woodman could be England's senior loose-head specialist through to the 2007 World Cup and beyond. On the basis of 10 red-rose matches a season, a 50-cap career is within the realms of the possible. All of which reinforces the uniqueness of Leonard's achievement in making it all the way to three figures. The two men may spend the next six weeks contesting the same shirt - the other props in the party, Phil Vickery and Julian White, are career tight heads - but Woodman is more than happy to acknowledge his rival's exalted position in the front-row pantheon.
"Unbelievable," Woodman said. "I've learned so much from him. He's not one to call the shots, to force himself on the younger players. But he does give you pointers, just in the way he trains, in the way he carries himself. And if you want advice, he'll help you without a second thought. I should make the most of it while he's still playing, because we won't see his like again."Reuse content